Marijuana showdown: Mason Tvert to take on Patrick Kennedy prior to Project SAM launch

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As we reported in this space yesterday, Project SAM (the acronym stands for "Smart Approach to Marijuana") brings together Kennedy, a former Congressman from Rhode Island, with notables such as Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist David Frum, Denver-based addiction specialist (and Amendment 64 task force member) Dr. Christian Thurstone and the University of Florida's Kevin Sabet, a former drug-policy adviser for both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations who spoke to us at length about the organization.

According to Sabet, marijuana reformers like Tvert "live off the false dichotomy that the only choices for policy are prohibition and incarceration or legalization. But because we don't fit neatly in either basket, we're trying to have a rational conversation about marijuana in this country led by public health in a bipartisan way that learns from mistakes we made with alcohol and tobacco and also corrects the mistakes our current policy has."

Project SAM favors treatment for arrestees found with marijuana as opposed to incarceration, calling for such individuals to undergo what Sabet refers to as "public-health assessments" to determine if they have a substance-abuse problem. The group also wants to educate the public about what Sabet sees as the "potential pitfalls of legalization" in light of the "300-miles-per-hour freight train heading toward legalization right now." And while he agrees that legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco cause great societal harm, he believes "that horse is out of the barn" -- and he doesn't want marijuana to gallop freely as well.

To Tvert, Project SAM's interest in assessing marijuana users is intrusive and wrongheaded.

"If Patrick Kennedy and his cohorts were talking about education for teenagers caught with marijuana, we wouldn't be objecting," he says. "We might even work with them. But what they're proposing is forcing any person caught with marijuana to be subject to health screenings and be forced into marijuana education classes -- and clearly, this is not in line with the people of Colorado's take on marijuana, and increasingly the entire nation's attitude as well.

"This is just the next effort to keep marijuana illegal. The prohibitionists have learned that lying about marijuana being deadly or contributing to violent behavior has failed to capture the hearts and minds of people. So now they're resorting to making some good arguments in support of ending marijuana prohibition" -- like, for instance, lobbying against jail time and marijuana convictions stigmatizing people who apply for jobs or financial aid -- "in order to maintain it."

As for Kennedy, his participation in Project SAM is "incredibly hypocritical," Tvert believes. "This is an individual whose family in part made a fortune off the sale of alcohol. If he's truly concerned about public health and safety, he should be working to educate the public about the relative harms of alcohol compared to marijuana. But this group isn't intent on providing the whole picture. If Patrick Kennedy wants people to be educated about marijuana, he should start by educating himself."

Tvert also objects to Sabet's arguments equating the risks of marijuana and alcohol.

Continue for more of our interview with Mason Tvert about the Project SAM protest.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts